By Damian Thompson
(The Spectator) The Catholic Church is this week in the biggest mess it’s been in
since the Second Vatican Council, and Pope Francis is to blame.
The Vatican cardinals in charge of doctrine, finance and worship are
believed to have written to Francis at the beginning of the Synod on the
Family – now in its second chaotic week – privately warning him that it
was likely to spin out of control. That’s because most of the world’s
bishops don’t support any major change to the church’s rules on allowing
divorced and remarried people to receive communion, or to the way it
treats gay couples. You may think they’re wrong, but that is the
situation. Also, the cardinals were exasperated by changes to the
synod’s procedures that seemed designed to give undue prominence to
A version of the letter was leaked yesterday.
There’s confusion over its wording and the names of the 13 cardinals
who reportedly signed it, but we know roughly what it said and we can be
pretty confident that it had the support of Cardinal Müller, Prefect of
the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Cardinal Pell, Prefect
of the Secretariat for the Economy; Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the
Congregation for Divine Worship; Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York;
and Cardinal Napier, Archbishop of Durban. So there we have three out
of the four most powerful cardinals in the Curia, plus the most
important American cardinal. Sarah (who is from Guinea) and Napier are
the two most influential African cardinals.
When the letter appeared, liberal Catholic journalists made desperate
attempts to play down the story – making them look like idiots when,
this morning, Cardinal Müller described it as ‘the new Vatileaks‘, referring to the revelations of Vatican skulduggery that probably triggered the resignation of Benedict XVI.
I don’t know how all this will play out. The conflicts and the
boundaries between liberals and conservatives are too difficult to map.
But it’s time to recognise that – however endearing you find him – Pope
Francis is responsible for this crisis. Not only has he made bad
decisions, but he has sometimes made the same bad decision twice. In
First, he decided to kick off a debate about
admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to communion by handing the
microphone to Cardinal Walter Kasper, a retired German theologian who
takes the – by Catholic standards – extreme view that people should be
allowed to decide for themselves whether to receive the sacrament.
Kasper is an old adversary of Benedict XVI, with whom he clashed on the
fundamental subject of the authority of bishops vis-à-vis popes. This
offended Benedict loyalists and confused everyone, since it seemed to
imply that Francis, like Kasper, favours devolution of spiritual
authority to local churches.
Second, Francis called a preparatory synod on the
family a year ago during which the two officials running it, Cardinal
Baldisseri and Archbishop Forte, were allowed to stage a mid-synod
briefing suggesting that the synod fathers favoured lifting the
communion ban for people in second marriages and granting a limited
degree of recognition to same-sex couples. Since this wasn’t true, all
hell broke loose. Baldisseri and Forte should have been banished to
dioceses in Antarctica. Instead…
Third, Francis reappointed these two prelates to run
the full-scale synod that’s falling apart as I write. Why, I have no
idea. It was hardly in his interests to tell the world that he couldn’t
learn from his mistakes.
Fourth, the Pope made the aforementioned changes to synod procedures that enabled conservatives to go around saying that the whole thing was rigged. I’m not saying it was, but yesterday Cardinal Napier, no less, said it was ‘hard to tell’
whether the result of the synod had been decided in advance (i.e.,
rigged). What I do know is that more than one of the alleged signatories
to the leaked letter have been very angry about the changes for some
time and felt the Pope wasn’t taking their objections seriously.
Fifth, Francis personally invited to a synod on the family
the ultra-liberal Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who five years
ago tried to conceal the fact that a bishop had molested his nephew. The
invitation was a disgrace and it reflects badly on all the Synod
Fathers that none of them has interrupted the proceedings to demand
These serious errors have been seized on by conservatives, as you’d
expect. But if I were a liberal (and, for what it’s worth, I do favour
some of the changes espoused by the radicals) I’d be furious that the
stubbornness and questionable judgment of a good and holy man, Pope
Francis, has turned sensitive debates into ideological warfare.